Nearly every afternoon, a friend of mine picks up his son at a community center for people with physical and mental disabilities. It’s the kind of place that brings to mind Mother Theresa’s saying about Jesus in His “distressing disguises.”
One young woman has cerebral palsy and autism. There’s a man with microcephaly, who communicates with grunts and uses a walker to get around. One girl with Down syndrome stares at a piece of paper while waiting for her ride home.
There are many more: some can communicate, others can’t. Some say hello and smile, others seem locked in their own little worlds, all of them waiting for specially-trained personnel to take them home.
This brings to mind a short story by the great Flannery O’Connor. For those of you who didn’t know it, Flannery O’Connor was a devout Christian, of the Catholic variety, and she’s widely considered to be one of the very greatest fiction writers that America produced in the 20th century. She died tragically of Lupus at the age of 39.
The O’Connor story I have in mind is called “Revelation,” and it’s about an extraordinary day in the life of Ruby Turpin, a relatively-prosperous woman in rural Georgia.
Ruby considers herself a good Christian and nothing about her respectable exterior suggests otherwise. Her interior life, however, suggests the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, complete with her thanking God for her superiority to those around her.
All of this changes when she’s attacked for reasons she cannot understand by a girl at a doctor’s office. Unsettled by what happened, she asks the girl “What you got to say to me?” to which the girl replies “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”
This assault on her pious self-image unsettles Ruby. She wonders how she can be saved and be from Hell at the same time. She rails at God saying “If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then.” And then she asks God “Who do you think you are?”
God’s response is the “revelation” of the story’s title. Ruby sees a “vast horde of souls . . . tumbling toward heaven.” It included everyone she had ever looked down on: “white trash, clean for the first time in their lives,” blacks in white robes “and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
And bringing up the rear were people like herself, “marching behind the others with great dignity . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”
Thinking about the O’Connor story, my friend realized that every day he goes to the community center, he sees Jesus waiting for his ride home. He sees Jesus in the wheelchair and staring at the piece of paper. More to the point, he realized that his virtues—his skills, talents, piety, and anything else he thought he brought to the Lord’s service—were being burned away. For a moment, any gap between himself and the people waiting to go home vanished in the realization of how God sees things.
And just as the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, the foundation of a Christian worldview is the understanding that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. Scripture is very clear that God doesn’t need or want our presumed virtues, talents, and strengths. What He wants is our willingness to depend on Him and to share that life of dependence with each other.
Or we can opt for being warthogs.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.